Turkish Town Has Hosted 12,000 Years of Human History & Stunning Biodiversity

This spring and summer, National Geographic Young Explorer Julia Harte is traveling along the Tigris River from Southern Iraq to Southeastern Turkey, documenting ancient sites and modern communities along the river before they are transformed by the Ilısu Dam, an 11 billion-cubic-meter hydroelectric dam that will generate 2% of Turkey’s power.  


Almost nowhere in the world is human history as densely layered as it is in Hasankeyf. Strange sights greet its visitors: thousands of caves carved into limestone cliffs, children playing on the remains of a gargantuan medieval bridge, the towering minaret of a 15th-century mosque.

The first known inhabitants of this place on the banks of the Tigris River in Southeastern Turkey settled here in Neolithic times, 12,000 years ago.

Since then, Hasankeyf has been continuously inhabited by almost every major Mesopotamian civilization, though it reached its cultural and commercial apex between the 12th and 15th centuries when it served as the capital of the Turkmen Artukid and Kurdish Ayyubid dynasties.

Caves pockmark the cliffs along the Tigris River and modern-day houses neighbor medieval monuments in Hasankeyf. Photo by Julia Harte.
From the caves pockmarking the cliffs along the Tigris River to the medieval mosques and monuments near the town center, history is always present in Hasankeyf. Photo by Julia Harte.

Compared to the popular interest in the Ottomans who came after them, medieval Islamic civilizations in Mesopotamia are little understood, partly because few of their major settlements and monuments have been preserved.

But their history is far from dry. From the Mongols to the Byzantines, far-flung cultures met, fought, and traded here, leaving a unique artistic and architectural legacy. “Because of this, Hasankeyf is a very important and rare place, for humanity and for archeology,” says Necdet Talayhan, a local archeologist who has worked on many of the past decade’s excavations in the area.

Until the 1960s, many of Hasankeyf’s residents lived in ancient caves built into the cliffs along the river, according to John Crofoot, co-founder of a group devoted to raising awareness about Hasankeyf.

“They have a very near memory of life in the caves,” says John Crofoot, co-founder of Hasankeyf Matters, a group devoted to raising awareness about the ancient town. “Some of the people alive today grew up in the caves on the Citadel Mount. They remember playing there; they still go back there regularly to visit the graves of their ancestors.”

Mehmet Tilki is seen in the main room of his cave. Photo by Julia Harte.
Mehmet Tilki is seen in the main room of his cave. Photo by Julia Harte.

Only one man still lives in the caves: Mehmet Tilki. More than a century ago, his grandfather, an Ottoman postman, moved here from what is now Syria.

Growing up, Tilki’s entire extended family lived in the caves surrounding his own. He left Hasankeyf as a teenager to work in Adana, and was there during the 1970s and 1980s when the Turkish government evicted most people from the caves, citing safety concerns about crumbling rock.

Tilki returned to his cave 15 years ago. The government also tried to evict him, but Tilki responded with straightforward logic.

“This is my house. Whose house is it? The state’s. Whose state is it? Mine. Who am I? The state. That’s how it was handled. May they be healthy, our government,” he says cheerfully, mending a sack in the main room of his cave.

Photo by Julia Harte.
A Turkish flag is seen on a cliff overlooking a valley in Hasankeyf riddled with caves that were inhabited until a few decades ago. A few are still used to keep livestock. Photo by Julia Harte.

Tilki’s Arab roots are typical of Hasankeyf residents, most of whom are trilingual. Most speak Arabic as a mother tongue, in addition to Kurdish and Turkish.

One of five Arabic-speaking micro-cultures in Southeastern Turkey, according to Crofoot, Hasankeyf Arabic is related to the Arabic spoken by Bedouins in Iraq.

Even the name “Hasankeyf” derives from what it was called by Arabs who seized it from the Byzantine Empire in 640 CE: Hisn Kayfa, or “rock fortress” in Arabic.

Hasankeyf women are seen conversing over a lunch of meat-stuffed grape leaves and salad. Photo by Julia Harte.
Hasankeyf women are seen conversing over a lunch of meat-stuffed grape leaves and salad. Photo by Julia Harte.

Hasankeyf’s biodiversity is as remarkable as its cultural composition. One hundred and thirty types of birds live here, including 18 threatened species, as well as endangered raptors, big mammals, and marine life.

“They’re so valuable, because this is the last wild, free river in this region — not only in Turkey, but also whole Middle East region,” says Dicle Tuba Kılıç, the Hasankeyf Campaign Coordinator for Doğa Derneği, Turkey’s Nature Foundation.

But this unusual ecosystem may soon be no more, says Kılıç, thanks to the Ilısu Dam.

A Turkish government-backed hydroelectric project 60 kilometers downstream from Hasankeyf, the Ilısu Dam would submerge Hasankeyf and displace more than 25,000 people living in Turkey’s Upper Tigris Basin. Part of the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), a regional development plan, the dam is projected to generate nearly 2 percent of Turkey’s electricity when it is complete.

Doğa Derneği fears the extinction of several important species after the dam: the Euphrates soft shell turtle, the red-wattled plover, and the Mesopotamian barbler fish.

Black kites are seen flying around Hasankeyf's iconic 12th century bridge. Photo by Julia Harte.
Black kites are seen flying around Hasankeyf’s iconic 12th century bridge. Photo by Julia Harte.

If the dam is finished on schedule, Hasankeyf will be completely under water by 2016, says Talayhan.

“It is impossible to excavate all the unexcavated areas before then,” he points out. “Ten percent of that area has been done, and at most, we can finish five percent more. All the remaining historical areas will stay under water and be destroyed.”

The Turkish government has declared plans to move a handful of Hasankeyf’s monuments to higher ground, build water sporting facilities around the reservoir, and promote Hasankeyf as a new center of tourism and leisure. But this does not sit well with many residents of Hasankeyf.

Tilki, the last cave-dweller of Hasankeyf, states his opinion bluntly: “If I leave and move away, and the state sets up a touristic place here, and people pay rent to live here, it will be an injustice to me,” he explains. “Because my ancestors lived here.”

But as construction continues, Hasankeyf’s fate looks ever grimmer.

Hasankeyf is seen at dusk. Photo by Julia Harte.
Hasankeyf is seen at dusk. Photo by Julia Harte.


This project is also made possible by a Dick Goldensohn Fund grant from the Center for Investigative Reporting.


Julia Harte is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, where she focuses on social and environmental justice issues. In 2013, she received a National Geographic Young Explorer grant to travel along the Tigris River from Southern Iraq to Southeastern Turkey, documenting the downstream and upstream impacts of Turkey's Ilısu Dam for a project entitled, "After the Dam, the Deluge: A Final Glimpse at the Ancient Town of Hasankeyf and Traditional Life Along the Tigris". Julia's work has previously appeared in Reuters, Foreign Policy, The World Policy Journal, Global Post, TimeOut Istanbul, the Philadelphia City Paper, and Cultural Survival Quarterly.

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